When I met British actor Jonas Armstrong at a Los Angeles-area hotel, he had just celebrated his birthday on New Year’s Day (he was reportedly the first child born in Ireland in 1981). “I took my little brother away on holiday. We went to Egypt,” he says of his birthday celebration. “I have to say that I was a bit pissed off, because I just turned 26, my brother’s 19. So you kind of have a short list of what you want on a holiday, and on that that short list of what there was, we didn’t manage to check any boxes. There was just nothing there. There were no women, there were no bars, there was no sun, the beach was full of rocks, the water was cold, it was cloudy and it was expensive and the food was crap. So all and all it was a bit of a downer.”
Hopefully Armstrong’s first trip to the U.S. for BBC America’s Robin Hood presentation at the winter cable press tour was more fun than the Egyptian excursion. On the flight over, he met British comedy queen Jennifer Saunders, and later in the evening there was a party with buxom wenches serving mead and TV writers being coaxed into reluctantly dancing what must’ve been Shakespeare’s version of the Electric Slide. Huzzah!
BBC America’s Robin Hood is a modern take on the legend of Robin Hood (Armstrong) and his Merry Men, who go about righting wrongs and subverting the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. In this adaptation, Robin, Earl of Huntingdon, returns from battling in the Crusades, only to find England fraught with greed and poverty, and the peasantry oppressed by taxation and unscrupulous lawmen. Robin and his band, with the lovely Maid Marian (newcomer Lucy Griffiths), try to fix England’s ills — with plenty of action, adventure, romance and even some cheekiness along the way.
One might think that landing a the starring role as a legendary English figure in a BBC series would inflate an ego, but Armstrong is charming, humble and committed, understanding how hard he’s worked to get this opportunity. Upon finishing work on a series called The Ghost Squad in 2005, Armstrong struggled to find steady work as an actor. “I spoke to my agent and said, ‘I’m getting a bit worried. I’m having meetings but I’m not hitting them. I’m not getting them. I’ve lost a bit of confidence.’ And I’d just been in a meeting for this thing called Losing Gemma. And I said, ‘It was crap. They hate me. It was awful. I felt really embarrassed. I didn’t perform properly.'” But a week later, he was offered the part in the film. It was about the same time that the BBC was casting Robin Hood. “I got a call saying I’ve got a meeting for Robin Hood. I knew the BBC were doing it, so I went along. My agent said, ‘It’s for Robin.’ I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m never going to get cast as Robin Hood. Never.’ She goes, ‘Well, go in and see them. They want to see you.’ So I went in and I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t think I was going to get it. And I just went in, read, and I think because I was that relaxed, that probably put me in a good state of mind. I was quite pleased with what I did. And of course, I got that [part] as well. So that was in a month and a half I got two jobs which I didn’t think I would ever get. And that just pulled me out of the depths of despair, and so I was off working for eight months solid. It was great.”
After going to India to film Losing Gemma, Armstrong was off to Budapest, Hungary, to attend “Hood Academy” — a two-week training regimen in archery, fencing, horseback riding and unarmed combat. Armstrong studied stage combat in drama school, but playing a legendary archer convincingly would take considerably more training. “When we arrived, we were hopeless because none of us had ever done it before,” he says of the cast’s lack of skill with a bow and arrow. “We’d go off if we had a spare 15 minutes … and we’d try to hit the trees and stuff. And we started to get better and better, and we could actually hit the tree.” Armstrong was a novice on a horse, too, but became a pretty good horseman with practice. “I’m quite able now. They don’t get worried when I’m on the horse,” he says. “I’m able to kind of get him up on two hind legs and turn around and kick him, and off we go. That is probably my favorite aspect of the show, is getting on my horse.”
With all the running around in Sherwood Forest, clanging swords and throwing punches, there were plenty of chances for the cast to do some damage during filming. “Thank God, I was OK,” Armstrong says, relieved. “A few of the other guys didn’t fare so well. Keith Allen — he plays the Sheriff — he came off a horse and damaged himself. I’m not going to say where he damaged himself but it was right kind of in the midsection. [laughs] So he damaged himself. And Sam Troughton, who plays Much — he was forever falling over. And that’s just simple things like running around, which you’d think any able-bodied male below the age of 50 would be able to do, but obviously he wasn’t able to do it, bless him. And, hits wise, you do get the odd knock. You do get the sword smacks around your knuckles, which hurts. You’re with these hard men, these Hungarian stuntmen, and you try to show no pain because you don’t want them to see you as a wimp. And they were all that much bigger than us, and we felt a bit inferior to them in terms of physical status, so you have to just get by the by. And I didn’t have any serious injuries. I had bruises and bumps and knocks. It’s a bit painful now and again, but that comes with it. That comes with the job. And it’s a great job to have running around fighting. I just enjoy it.”
This month finds Armstrong and the Robin Hood cast and crew back in Budapest filming the series’ second season, and Armstrong will take what he’s learned about surviving a six-month shoot in Hungary to good use. “I’ve learned not to wear undergarments underneath the costume,” he says. “Because it gets baking. It gets that hot. Middle of Europe, once you get past April, the temperature just soars.” He’ll also eat more to keep up his weight and strength, and drink less to keep up … well, to keep up. “It’s hard to do that when you’re a young, single male with loads of other lads around. You want to go out and you want to drink. You have to allow yourself that now and again, but you have to discipline yourself, because the late nights and the early mornings will take its toll. You have to be disciplined. I was disciplined, but I’ll be more so this time.”
Season 1 of Robin Hood premieres March 3 on BBC America.